The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Open Source


A copy of DC's laws is now free and open

After open data advocates pointed out how ridiculous it is that private companies have a copyright on the only publicly-available versions of DC's laws, DC Council General Counsel David Zvenyach helped make a public domain version and posted it online.

Photo from BoingBoing.

Tom MacWright explained the problem last month. DC, like many governments, contracts with a company (in this case LexisNexis) to compile all of the laws and keep them updated as they change. They post the laws online, but with licenses that restrict your rights to reuse the information, even though it's the public law.

Rather than ignoring the problem or issuing silly legal threats against people who were digitizing the code without permission, Zvenyach worked with the advocates to create a version of the code free of these restrictions.

Mike Masnick writes at TechDirt:

Part of the issue was that the only digital copy of the code that they had was the one given to them by West, and it contained a variety of extraneous information that was West's IP, including West logos on each section of the law (representing many thousands of copies). Zvenyach had Joshua Tauberer come by and spend a day removing every bit of West IP from the document and quickly releasing a downloadable copy of the DC Code with a CC0 public domain license.
Tom MacWright notes that this is just one step:
There are a few things that this isn't: it isn't the official copy of the code, and lawyers would be ill-advised to cite it alone. It isn't up-to-date—the council is fast-moving and this is just a snapshot. In time we'll fix these problems too.
What can people do with an open source set of DC laws? We can think of a lot of things, but the best part is when people do things we don't think of. Some commenters on MacWright's post wondered why this matters; can't you just find the code on the existing website? Yes, you can't link directly to a part of the code, and can only download pieces in Microsoft Word, but so what?

So what is all the ways someone could build better tools to make it easier to find the laws. Someone already made a tool that's for some purposes better than the official site. Or people could write automated programs to compare the laws on some topics, like yielding to pedestrians, to those in other states. (Hey, that would be a great idea! Has someone done that yet?)

Do you have ideas or want to implement some? MacWright is organizing a hackathon on Sunday. If you build something neat with the code, let us know and we'll show it off here.


DC's laws aren't yours

There's a deep, persistent, and crippling problem with the laws of DC: you can't download a copy.

Photo by on Flickr.

Due to a weak contract and a variety of legal techniques, it's not possible to create better ways to read the law or download it for offline access, or even to try to do better than the crummy online portal that serves as its official source.

It also means that it's hard to discuss legal matters online, since you can't link to specific laws—this article about David Gregory has had a broken link to the law in question since 40 minutes after it was posted, months ago.

How the law became scarce

How did this happen? It's a tricky answer of access, ownership, and contracts.

The DC Council writes and publishes bills, which are additions and subtractions to the law itself. The law is compiled by a contractorpreviously WestLaw, now LexisNexis. So the contractor holds a complete copy of the law.

The contractor publishes a few different versions of the "compiled law," each of which with restrictions:

Unfortunately, courts have upheld these types of restrictions in the CD and website Terms of Service. They get further support from the wire fraud statute, which prosecutors used in the Aaron Swartz case to escalate charges to felonies. And in all of these versions, the contractor tries to claim copyright through compilation copyright and additional content like citations and prefaces.

In the face of these strong guards against freeing the law, the most reasonable avenue for creating a freely-accessible copy is buying and scanning the printed copies, which is exactly what some citizens are starting to do.

Why this matters

This has effects in many places. Advocacy organizations pushing for changes can't reference laws by linking to them, so they have to copy & paste relevant sections and hope that people trust their versions. Of course, when laws go out of date, these copy and pasted guides stop working.

The goal of better educating the police about laws (like the rules of the road for bicyclists) is harder. Police can't have an offline copy of the law for quick access in the field, and the online version is near-useless on smartphones.

It's also locking the DC Council into using a contractor for this purpose. DC's contracts with WestLaw and LexisNexis aren't strong enough to force the contractors to provide them with a copyright-cleaned version, so the council itself doesn't have a compiled copy of the law that they can publish by themselves if they want to take this in-house.

What's Next

This is a hard problem to unwrap and fix, and there are multiple efforts afoot.

Waldo Jaquith is building The State Decoded, an open-source system for storing and displaying state codes. It's already deployed with Virginia's laws. Public is working on the long task of scanning and digitizing the print edition. And a group of residents are encouraging the council to write a better contract than the current one with LexisNexis, which doesn't provide for copyright-free copies.

Meanwhile, it'll be months or years until it's possible to download DC's laws onto your iPhone and clarify whether it is, indeed, legal to bike on a sidewalk (sometimes) or drink in public space (never).


Plan your next bike trip with

If you bike in the Washington region, it just got a little easier to figure out your route thanks to a new tool,, that launched today.

A Capital Bikeshare trip planned on lets you choose a start and end point and find the best bike route. Other tools like Google Maps already give bike directions, but this one does much more. If you want to take the trip on Capital Bikeshare, it will plan walking directions to and from appropriate CaBi stations, and even integrate real-time information about which stations have bikes and free docks.

There's often not one single, best bike route between two points. Some routes might be faster but hillier. Some routes involve more off-street trails, cycle tracks, and bike lanes. By default, evenly balances making the route quick, flat and (perceptibly) safe, but a triangular control lets you change the tradeoffs.

It's fun just to see what it would come up with for the absolute quickest route, or the flattest, and so on. Most maps don't tell you at all how hilly a route would be, and sometimes it can be quite a surprise when you try it.

OpenPlans, collaborating with BikeArlington, built the tool using publicly available, open source data about streets and bike paths from the OpenStreetMap project, where all kinds of people contribute geographic data, wiki style, that can become a part of tools like this one. You can too! is similar to a New York tool,, that OpenPlans put together after New York released proposed locations for its upcoming Citibikes bike sharing system. let New Yorkers directly figure out how Citibikes could help them in their everyday trips., though, will also plan a trip by personal bike without regard for CaBi locations.

The neat triangular routing tool comes from OpenPlans' OpenTripPlanner, powers Portland's TriMet trip planner. Since Portland has so many people biking or combining bikes and transit, TriMet wanted to be sure its planner let people plan a trip to bike to a transit station, ride transit, then bike to a destination. Of course, all other transit agencies would benefit from a similar feature.

Give it a try!


Breakfast links: Cuts and losses

Chopping the point: Clark Realty is not going to develop Poplar Point. Clark could no longer afford to do the whole project amid the bad economic climate, and DC decided to end the partnership rather than pay a portion of the cost. The city will move forward with the land transfer and EIS for now, prepare the land itself, and then re-bid the development. DC United and the District have stopped talking about a new stadium on the site as well, according to the Post. Marion Barry blames the administration for this project's collapse. Meanwhile, another developer has backed out of a project at Wheaton's Metro Plaza.

Photo by skwagner on Flickr.

Blocking the train: Virginia State Senator William Wampler of Bristol, in Virginia's far west where I-81 crosses into Tennessee, wants intercity rail to Washington. That's great, but less great is his budget amendment that would block the planned commuter rail service to Richmond and Lynchburg until the train goes all the way to Bristol. Rail advocates and the Chamber of Commerce guarantee the bill would kill any hope of new trains anytime soon. Tip: Daniel.

Record ridership, time for service cuts: Chris Zimmerman laments the folly of funding capital improvements in transit, as the stimulus does, while leaving operating expenses in the cold. Transit agencies around the nation will be buying new buses to run less service. Roger Lewis argues for more transit funding, and Steve Offutt agrees. Get There discusses some reader proposals for cutting Metro costs.

RIP Don Praisner: Montgomery County Councilmember Don Praisner has died just one year after his wife and less than a year after being elected to complete her Council term. Praisner has asked the County Council to appoint a caretaker to finish the term but who won't run again, to save the County the expense of another special election.

Rats vs. rates: Jack Evans proposes a tax credit for businesses that buy trash compactors, which help reduce rat infestations.

Benefits of open information: Wired profiles Mark Gorton, founder of New York's Open Planning Project (which publishes Streetsblog). The article focuses on TOPP's open source GeoServer, which enables many people to build GIS maps who never could before. Tip: Tom.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City